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2013 Fall Issue 7 (November 8, 2013)

Carleton Ponders Online Classes

November 8, 2013
By Thomas Cahill

With the popularity of Internet classes swiftly growing, a group of administrators is considering whether or not to shift some Carleton courses online. 

Carleton’s Strategic Plan, a document from the fall of 2012, noted the spread of MOOCs (massive open online courses) and online education.

In order to stay current with new and emerging technologies, the plan called for the establishment of a group to explore the opportunities and benefits that online classes potentially offer, in such settings as 100-level prerequisite courses 

This group is called the Future Learning Technologies Group. Perhaps its most important function is to eventually make recommendations in areas such as joining with other institutions in online partnerships and “threats to the residential liberal arts model” from quality online alternatives.

When will all this start to matter?

George Shuffelton, Professor of English and Associate Dean of the College, said that students should not worry as much about the prospect of online classes.

“In some respects, it’s something that we are already doing,” he said

He cited Moodle exercises and videos provided by sites like Khan Academy as examples of the already-existing online education at Carleton.

Gaston Lopez ’17 concurred, counting “audio drills for language classes, Moodle posts for discussions, communications with profs on Zimbra” among his online activities for classes.
Greater integration of online and classroom material is certainly possible in the future. Right now, though, the Future Learning Technologies Group is in the early stages of exploration.

“We’ve had some conversations with with names from the MOOC world. We’ve talked to EdX [Harvard/MIT MOOC nonprofit] about the possibility of signing on to their big ventures and it is an interesting possible partner,” said Shuffelton.“At the moment, those are just conversations.”

Along with the conversations, the Group has drafted a document called Principles and Priorities for Online Education, a set of guidelines to consult as new projects and opportunities spring up. Shuffelton says that the group plans to “bring it to students very shortly.”

Even as classroom exercises are transferred to the realm of the Internet, one big draw of small liberal arts colleges and particularly Carleton remains the promise of student-professor interaction and the small, dynamic classroom atmosphere.

“These online technologies supplement the classroom experience. They cannot supplant them,” Lopez said.

Shuffelton also stressed the importance of such interactions.

“What this place is about is interactions…I think most of us who are hopeful for the possibility of online learning think that moving certain activities online gives community members more time to engage in such interactions,” he explained. “To me, that’s the promise of all this – to gain something by using the possibilities of online education.”

And while online classes may seem less stringent than normal classes, they frequently prove just as rigorous. Lopez, drawing on personal experience, noted that, “You do need to be very committed, probably more so than real classes, because your resources for help - the human ones of other classmates and professors - are far more distant physically and possibly not as accessible.”

Even so, some students may not want to interact with class material online, especially students with previous positive experiences with classroom environments. Lopez, for example, said that part of his rationale in choosing Carleton was “because I knew I learned so well in classroom settings.”

How might students react to “bigger steps” in the process of moving more of class online?

“Well, there are faculty who are enthusiastic and faculty who are less enthusiastic about this…we’ve got room for a range of opinion,” said Shuffleton, “ I imagine that over time student expectations will change. Some of the things students are doing now are things they weren’t excited about 10 or 15 years ago.”

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